Who owned the elephant?

Bart Simpson famously asked “where’s my elephant?”

He wasn’t the first.

In 1914 or 1915 Mr Maung Dwe of Burma captured an elephant and trained it to work. About six months later he sold it to Mr Maung Sin, for whom it worked until 6 June 1917 when it became lost in the jungle. The creature appears to have joined with a herd of wild elephants. In June 1918 it was recaptured by Mr Maung Shwe. He found it was able to be put to work very soon thereafter. Sin sued successfully for recovery of the elephant. The defendant appealed to the Lower Burma Chief Court.

Elephant at work - Rangoon, Burma
Elephants at work, Rangoon (c.1907) [Image from here]
Higinbotham J took his bearings from Halsbury’s Laws of England, vol.1 ¶¶798799. According to Halsbury a person can have only “qualified” property in a wild animal.  If a wild animal escapes to its former liberty, the ownership is lost.  He continued –

Elephants are animals which, though by nature wild, are peculiarly amenable to training and quickly become tame. If any such tame and trained ani­mal should go off with a wild herd of other elephants and remain at liberty so long that when recaptured, it had to be dealt with and trained as if it were a wild animal, which had never before been tamed and trained, I think it would be correct to say that it had reverted to its natural state and was in fact a wild animal.  In such case, the former owner would have lost all property to it.  But if on recapture it was found to be tame and could be put to work again almost at once, I think it would be incorrect to say that it was a wild animal.

In this case the recaptured elephant had been returned to work in a very short time and appeared trained.  It followed that it was not a wild animal when recaptured and so Sin remained the owner.

Shwe v Sin, AIR 1921 Lower Burma 1